Analysis: here's what science tells us about the benefits of live music for our psychological health

We all know there's something special about a gig: the buzz of collective energy, the goosebumps, a crowd of strangers singing along to the same tune. There’s an unpredictability in the air and the familiar sounds of opening notes, riffs and overtures are made unfamiliar by the sheer fact of being performed live right in front of you. Throwing your headphones on just isn’t the same. So what can science tell us about why live music is so powerful?

It wasn’t that long ago that the only way to experience music was a live performance (recorded music is a late 19th century invention). For thousands of years, music and dance went hand in hand as part of rituals, celebrations, festivals, harvests.

It makes sense then, that there are important benefits associated with going to a gig. According to Dr Claire Howlin, researcher at Queen Mary University of London, there are four key factors that begin to explain why the live music experience is different to listening to a recording: synchronicity, spontaneity, identity and authenticity.

'You also get a sense of your own identity as a fan of a particular artist from going to a gig' Photo: Hanny Naibaho/IUnsplash

Studies of rowers and fire walkers have shown that moving in synchrony with other people — clapping together, waving your arms, making different symbols in the air —actually increases your pain threshold and can synchronise you physiologically with other members of the audience. "Being part of something bigger than yourself can lead to a sense of self-extension and help to reinforce and validate your own sense of identity."

You also get a sense of your own identity as a fan of a particular artist from going to a gig. "That social identity is really important to your psychological wellbeing", says Howlin. "Having an opportunity to have that validated and reinforced and made really salient — 'yes I am a fan of this artist and so are all these other people around me’ — strengthens your bonds with that group.

"There's a lot of research that demonstrates that when you feel stronger bonds with a group like that, you’re more likely to be pro-social afterwards. You’re more likely to engage in cooperative behaviour to people within that group and outside the group. People coming out of a gig or after a gig are more likely to be more cooperative and feeling a greater sense of social cohesion and social inclusion and it's really important for the building blocks of community and connection.

Live music definitely makes you feel better and does seem to have protective benefits against ill-being too

"And often people enjoy the live experience more so, because they get a greater sense of authenticity from the performer, which means that you're actually connecting - you feel like you might have a stronger connection with the performer."

The spontaneity of live performance also provides an element of surprise. Sometimes a band might treat the crowd to a variation from the studio recording, some new material, a rarely performed tune from the early days or even a stellar cover number.

"We know that when you are slightly surprised in a musical experience that neurologically this increases the likelihood that you're going to experience activation in your neural reward networks," says Howlin. "Even if you have the same emotional experience [as when listening to a recorded version of the same song], it's actually more enjoyable to have a little bit of spontaneity in the performance. It's kind of challenging you as a listener… fans will really value that."

'The social connection you get from a live gig is key'. Photo: Getty Images

On the flip side, people who aren’t fans won’t necessarily pick up on the same benefit because they won't have the same framework to work from or the same expectations. Howlin explains that they won’t be in a position to appreciate smaller deviations from a musical perspective.

"There's so much going on in a live music performance. If you think about the wellbeing benefits, it definitely makes you feel better, but if you think about ill-being - depression, anxiety, loneliness, emotional ill-being - it does seem to have protective benefits against those as well, and stress benefits."

"At the moment the data does not show any benefit for live music over recorded music. It’s the identity piece that's more important in the live setting, where you're actually getting more recognition of who you are."

The reality is that music and dance is something that people actually need

Music lights up loads of different centres in the brain, says Dr Hilary Moss, senior lecturer in music therapy at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at University of Limerick. Research on listening to music has shown it can reduce anxiety and stress pre-surgery, as well as the perception of pain post-surgery. Not only that, it relaxes you and lowers your blood pressure.

The benefits are similar for live music, though not as researched, but Moss agrees that the social connection you get from a live gig is key. "I think that sense of everybody singing in a stadium together, you can't recreate that and it’s something extraordinary, that unity, that bringing people together in one song, whether it’s at a football stadium or a concert. It's that sense of being part of something much bigger and being united."

Moss highlights American psychologist Abraham Maslow (famous for his Hierarchy of Needs), who had a theory of Peak Experiences — moments of "awe, ecstasy, or sudden insight into life" - and music was one of the triggers suggested by his research.

Howlin says the pandemic showed that the power of music should not be taken for granted. "It's a funny thing now, there’s this assumption that music and dance, enjoyment and fun are somehow extra, rather than actually intrinsic and embedded into a functioning society, and happy, healthy, functioning people. But if you want to look after people's wellbeing, you really need to give them opportunities for self expression and social connection.

"I think the reality is that music and dance is something that people actually need. It’s not something that should be taken for granted and it's not something optional. It's something that every human collective has always done."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ